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Eduard Bernstein

Eduard Bernstein
Born (1850-01-06)6 January 1850
Schöneberg, Germany
Died 18 December 1932(1932-12-18) (aged 82)
Berlin, Germany
Nationality German
Occupation Politician
Known for Founder of evolutionary socialism (democratic socialism), social democracy and revisionism (reformism)

Eduard Bernstein (6 January 1850 – 18 December 1932) was a German social democratic political theorist and politician, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the founder of evolutionary socialism, social democracy and revisionism. Bernstein had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxist thinking and began to criticize views held by Marxism when he investigated and challenged the Marxist materialist theory of history.[1] He rejected significant parts of Marxist theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics; he rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective.[2]

Bernstein distinguished between early Marxism as being its immature form: as exemplified by The Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in their youth, that he opposed for what he regarded as its violent Blanquist tendencies; and later Marxism as being its mature form that he supported.[3] This mature form of Marxism refers to Marx in his later life acknowledging that socialism could be achieved through peaceful means through legislative reform in democratic societies.[4]


  • Life 1
  • Opinions 2
  • References 3
  • Bibliography 4
  • Further reading 5
    • Primary sources 5.1
  • External links 6


Bernstein was born in Schöneberg (now part of Berlin), to Jewish parents, who were active in the Reform Temple on the Johannistrasse where services were performed on Sunday. His father was a locomotive driver. From 1866 to 1878, after leaving school, he was employed in banks as a banker's clerk.[5] His political career began in 1872, when he joined a socialist party with Marxist tendencies, known formally as the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Eisenacher Programms – a proponent of the Eisenach (named after the German town Eisenach) type of German socialism – and soon became known as an activist. Bernstein's party contested two elections against a rival socialist party, the Lassalleans (Ferdinand Lassalle's Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein), but in both elections neither party was able to win a significant majority of the leftist vote. Consequently, Bernstein, together with August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, prepared the Einigungsparteitag ("unification party congress") with the Lassalleans in Gotha in 1875. Karl Marx's famous Critique of the Gotha Program criticized what he saw as a Lassallean victory over the Eisenachers whom he favored; interestingly, Bernstein later noted that it was Liebknecht, considered by many to be the strongest Marxist advocate within the Eisenacher faction, who proposed the inclusion of many of the ideas which so thoroughly irritated Marx.

In the Reichstag to approve Bismarck's "Socialist Law."[6]

Bismarck's strict anti-Socialist legislation was passed on 12 October 1878. For nearly all practical purposes, the Social Democratic Party was outlawed and, throughout Germany, it was actively suppressed. However, it was still possible for Social Democrats to campaign as individuals for election to the Reichstag, and this they did. Indeed, despite the severe persecution to which it was subjected, the party actually increased its electoral success, gaining 550,000 votes in 1884 and 763,000 in 1887.

The vehemence of Bernstein's opposition to the government of Bismarck made it desirable for him to leave Germany.[7] Shortly before the "Socialist Law" came into effect, he went into exile in Zurich, accepting a position as private secretary for social democratic patron Karl Höchberg, a wealthy supporter of Social Democracy. A warrant subsequently issued for his arrest ruled out any possibility of his returning to Germany, and he was to remain in exile for more than twenty years. In 1888, Bismarck convinced the Swiss government to expel a number of important members of German social democratism from its country, and so Bernstein relocated to London, where he associated with Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky. It was soon after his arrival in Switzerland that he began to think of himself as a Marxist.[8] In 1880, he accompanied Bebel to London in order to clear up a misunderstanding concerning his involvement with an article published by Höchberg and denounced by Marx and Engels as being "chock-full of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideas." The visit was a success. Engels in particular was impressed by Bernstein's zeal and his ideas.

Back in Zurich, Bernstein became increasingly active in working for Der Sozialdemokrat ("Social Democrat"), and later succeeded Fabian Society and Henry Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation.[9] Indeed, in later years, his opponents routinely claimed that his "revisionism" was due to his having come to see the world "through English spectacles." It is, of course, impossible to determine how far the charge was justified. Bernstein himself denied it.[10]

In 1891, he was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program, and from 1896 to 1898, he published a series of articles entitled Probleme des Sozialismus ("Problems of Socialism") that resulted in the revisionism debate in the SPD.[11] He also published a book titled Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie ("The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy") in 1899. The book was in great contrast to the positions of August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Rosa Luxemburg's 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? was also a polemic against Bernstein's position. In 1900, Berstein published Zur Geschichte und Theorie des Sozialismus ("The history and theory of socialism," 1900).[12]

USPD Partei Board on 5 December 1919, Arthur Hagen, Emanuel Wurm.

In 1901, he returned to Germany, after the end of a ban that had kept him from entering the country. He became an editor of the newspaper Vorwärts that year,[7][12] and a member of the Reichstag from 1902 to 1918. He voted against the armament tabling in 1913, together with the SPD fraction's left wing. Although he had voted for war credits in August 1914, from July 1915 he opposed World War I and in 1917 he was among the founders of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which united anti-war socialists (including reformists like Bernstein, "centrists" like Kautsky and revolutionary Marxists like Karl Liebknecht). He was a member of the USDP until 1919, when he rejoined the SPD. From 1920 to 1928 Bernstein was again a member of the Reichstag. He retired from political life in 1928.

Bernstein died on 18 December 1932 in Berlin. A commemorative plaque is placed in his memory at Bozener Straße 18, Berlin-Schöneberg, where he lived from 1918 until his death. His grave in the Eisackstrasse Cemetery became a "Protected Grave" (Ehrengrab) of the city-state of Berlin.


Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus (1899) was Bernstein's most significant work. Bernstein was principally concerned with refuting Marx's predictions about the imminent and inevitable demise of capitalism, and Marx's consequent laissez faire policy which opposed ameliorative social interventions before the demise. Bernstein indicated simple facts that he considered to be evidence that Marx's predictions were not being borne out: he noted that the centralisation of capitalist industry, while significant, was not becoming wholescale and that the ownership of capital was becoming more, and not less, diffuse.[12][13]

As to Marx's belief in the disappearance of the middleman, Bernstein declared that the entrepreneur class was being steadily recruited from the proletariat class, and therefore all compromise measures, such as the state regulation of the hours of labor, provisions for old-age pensions, and so on, should be encouraged. For this reason, Bernstein urged the laboring classes to take an active interest in politics.[12] Bernstein also indicated what he considered to be some of the flaws in Marx's labor theory of value.[13]

Bernstein was vilified by the orthodox Marxists led by Rosa Luxemburg for his revisionism.[14] Bernstein remained, however, very much a socialist, albeit an unorthodox one: he believed that socialism would be achieved by capitalism, not by capitalism's destruction (as rights were gradually won by workers, their cause for grievance would be diminished, and consequently, so too would the motivation for revolution). During the intra-party debates about his ideas, Bernstein explained that, for him, the final goal of socialism was nothing; progress toward that goal was everything.

Socialism, Rosa Luxemburg argued, has its end in social revolution. Revisionism, she said, "amounts in practice to the advice. . . that we abandon the social revolution--the goal of Social Democracy--and turn social reform from a means of the class struggle into its final aim."[15] She says Revisionism has lost sight of scientific Socialism and reverted to Idealism, and therefore lost its predictive force. Since Reformists underestimate the anarchy of capitalism and say it has "adaptability" and "viability," by which they mean that the contradictions of capitalism will not of historical necessity drive it to its doom, they would, she said, abandon the "objective necessity" for Socialism and give up all hope for a Socialist future. The movement will collapse unless Revisionism is repudiated. Trade unionists, who could see the successes of capitalism and the improvement of working conditions, and who wanted to improve working conditions through parliament, generally followed Bernstein, while hard core intellectuals generally followed Luxemburg.[16]

Although Marx would argue that free trade would be the quickest fulfillment of the capitalist system, and thus its end, Bernstein considered protectionism as helping only a selective few, being fortschrittsfeindlich (anti-progressive), for its negative effects on the masses. Germany's protectionism, Bernstein argued, was based only on political expediency, isolating Germany from the world (especially from Britain), creating an autarky that would only result in conflict between Germany and the rest of the world.[17]

Bernstein's views on Jewish matters evolved. He never identified as a Zionist. Yet after initially favoring a wholly assimilationist solution to "the Jewish Question", his attitude toward Zionism became considerably more sympathetic after World War I.[18][19] Bernstein is also noted for being "one of the first socialists to deal sympathetically with the issue of homosexuality."[20]


  1. ^ Berman, Sheri. Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 38–39.
  2. ^ Michael Harrington. Socialism: Past and Future. Reprint edition of original published in 1989. New York, New York, USA: Arcade Publishing, 2011. P. 251.
  3. ^ Steger, Manfred B. The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein And Social Democracy. Cambridge, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1997. pg. 236–237.
  4. ^ Micheline R. Ishay. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. Berkeley and Lose Angeles, California, USA: University of California Press, 2008. P. 148.
  5. ^  
  6. ^ The Preconditions of Socialism Eduard Bernstein
  7. ^ a b  
  8. ^ Berstein, Sozialdemokratische Lehrjahre, p.72; Berstein to Bebel, 20.10.1898, Tudor and Tudor, p.324.
  9. ^ This influence is particularly evident in Bernstein's My Years of Exile: Reminiscences of a Socialist (London, 1921).
  10. ^ Bernstein to Bebel, 20.10.1898, Tudor and Tudor, pp. 325-6.
  11. ^ See Wolfgang Eichhorn: Über Eduard Bernstein. Gegensatz und Berührungspunkte zu Rosa Luxemburg und W. I. Lenin, in: Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, No. I/2002.
  12. ^ a b c d  
  13. ^ a b Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus (1899)
  14. ^ Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's challenge to Marx (1952) p 258ff
  15. ^ Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's challenge to Marx (1952) p 259
  16. ^ Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's challenge to Marx (1952) p 260
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^


  • Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism, J. H. W. Dietz, Stuttgart 1899, reprinting: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution, International Specialized Book Service Inc, 1963, hardcover, ISBN 0-7146-1454-8; trade paperback, Spokesman Books, 1980, ISBN 0-85124-286-3; trade paperback, 287 pages, Coronet Books, 2000, ISBN 0-85124-630-3
  • Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation, Random House, 1961, trade paperback, ISBN 0-8052-0011-8; trade paperback, ISBN 1-299-16172-3 online
  • Eduard Bernstein, My Years of Exile: Reminiscences of a Socialist, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1986, hardcover, ISBN 0-313-25114-2
  • Eduard Bernstein, Selected Writings of Eduard Bernstein, 1900–1921, Prometheus Books, 1996, hardcover, ISBN 1-57392-357-5

Further reading

  • Gay, Peter, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's challenge to Marx (1952), Octagon Books, ISBN 0-88254-837-9; Collier Books, ISBN 0-374-93017-1 online
  • Hamilton, Richard F. Marxism, Revisionism, and Leninism: Explication, Assessment, and Commentary (Greenwood, 2000) online
  • Hulse, James W. Revolutionists in London: a study of five unorthodox Socialists, Clarendon Press, 1970, ISBN 0-19-827175-1
  • Ramaswamy, S. and Subrata Mukherjee, Eduard Bernstein - His Thoughts and Works: His Life and Works, Deep & Deep Publications, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 81-7100-768-6
  • Steger, Manfred B. Quest for Evolutionary Socialism: Eduard Bernstein and Social Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 1997, hardcover, 287 pages, ISBN 0-521-58200-8
  • Thomas, Paul. Marxism & Scientific Socialism: From Engels to Althusser (Routledge, 2008)

Primary sources

  • Tudor, Henry Tudor and J. M. Tudor, eds. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896–1898, Cambridge University Press, 1988, hardcover, 1988, ISBN 0-521-34049-7

External links

  • Wikisource logo Works written by or about Eduard Bernstein at Wikisource
  • Works by Eduard Bernstein at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Eduard Bernstein at Internet Archive
  • Eduard Bernstein Archive at
  • , 1895 and 1898.Die Neue ZeitBernstein on Homosexuality, Articles from
  • Evolutionary Socialism: a Criticism and Affirmation: (Die Voraussetzungen Des Sozialismus und Die Aufgaben Der Sozialdemokratie.) (Google Books)
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